Finding Heart in America’s Heartland by Johanna Read

I confess to having dismissed travel to the United States for most of my adult life.

Sure, I’m always happy to visit New York City or San Francisco to sample the latest fusion restaurant or explore Chinatown and Little Korea. But I prefer travelling abroad and learning about places and cultures as different as possible from where I live. These travel habits are a major contributor to my shock at the results of the 2016 U.S. election.

In my defense, I am Canadian. But many of my American friends, especially those who live in and only travel to the U.S. coasts, were just as surprised as I was. I decided to explore. So, a week after the election, I found myself flying to Branson, Missouri as a way to learn about America’s Heartland. Branson is an ideal spot to begin a road trip to get a taste of the American South, too. Just four hours away is charming Hot Springs, Arkansas, where I went for a spring visit.

Branson, Missouri’s American Family Values

Branson, a town of about 12,000 people in the Ozark Mountains, has a reputation of being a tourist destination for retirees and church groups. While there’s plenty to attract both, there’s also room for other interests too. My trip to Branson broadened my understanding of what many dismiss as “middle America”.

After arriving in Branson, one of my my first stops was Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-themed amusement park unlike any other I’ve seen. Sure, it has a carousel and thrill rides (including Outlaw Run, the best-designed rollercoaster I’ve ever been on) but it’s a place where the origin of American family values can be better understood.

I explored the depths of Marvel Cave, which was discovered by the Osage Indians around 1500. Descending 300 feet into the Cathedral Room, our guide tells us the cave was the beginning of the Herschend family business. This business promotes wholesome entertainment aimed at bringing a deeper family connection in, as their website states, “a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics.”

“Welcome! Would you like to try?”

Throughout my visit, I heard this amicable invitation often. I watched Silver Dollar City’s craftspeople create American history before my eyes in the form of blown glass, forged horseshoes and whittled fiddles. Master candy maker and 72-year-old grandma June Ward showed me how to make peanut brittle. I saw “students”, young and old, learning how to write on slates in the one-room school house. Staff and guests alike took a quiet moment to pray in the Wilderness Church, a log chapel originally built in 1849 and relocated to the park. I was as fascinated by the music of four veteran bluegrass pickers as I was by their hillbilly accents and stories of life in the country music business, of finding Jesus and abandoning alcohol.

I was surprised to find myself moved and strangely introspective after these experiences. I’d felt this way observing Lao Buddhist practices and talking to Tunisians visiting the Bardo Museum, but realized that insights into American society are no less interesting and important just because they’re closer to home.

Branson extends the genuine hospitality of its residents to the tourists who visit. Perhaps it’s a result of the area’s Christian family values combined with the heart of America’s Heartland and a sprinkling of Southern values. Not once did I feel like just another tourist, as I have in New York, Bali and other destinations around the world.

Branson’s Titanic Museum uses a welcoming technique to individualize the experience of seeing the ocean liner’s artifacts. Each visitor receives a boarding ticket outlining the story of an actual Titanic passenger to help them navigate the museum. Phoebe, our guide, was astute in her ticket choice for me — explorer, author and feminist Helen Churchill Candee. Looking at the museum’s exhibits through Helen’s eyes, I didn’t feel like a tourist at all.  

At Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, many of the singing servers have their own hard luck stories. Owner Mel Bilbo tells me that “we make up their family” and explains why he’s so at home in Branson — “I like to help people.” That family feeling is extended to guests. The talented singers put 100% into every performance and one even gave me a heartfelt hug as thanks for my genuine applause. Mel says his goal is “seeing kids’ eyes open up and [getting them to] smile like when they see a Disney character” as they watch the performances and dig into a Climb Every Mountain Ice Cream Avalanche.

McClard's Bar-B-Q. Photo by Johanna Read

The extra care and attention continues at Dogwood Canyon, a waterfall-filled nature park just outside town. Our guide, Kelly, went out of her way to ensure I got photos of the bison, elk, deer, and long-horned cattle and patiently answered all my questions about how the remains of indigenous people were found in the reserve, dated to 6000 BCE and then protected. She even made sure I didn’t miss out on the chance to give the rainbow trout a snack at one of Dogwood’s fishing ponds, saying I’d regret it if I didn’t try it.

I felt like every person I met in Branson was sincerely pleased to have me there and wanted me to enjoy and learn as much as possible, just as if I were their neighbor or family member.

Branson was full of opportunities to learn about a side of America that I, as a Canadian, knew little about. Americans need to learn about Missouri, too. Those in my group were as wide-eyed as I was.

There isn’t even consensus on how Branson geographically identifies. The country music, the many Confederate flags, being called “ma’am” and regular offerings of sweet tea all made me question whether we were in the Midwest or the South. Americans, even tourism publications,  aren’t clear either. I conducted an  informal poll when I was in Branson and then via Facebook with my American friends after I returned home: 40% said Midwest, 40% said the South and the remaining 20% said “the Midsouth”, “lightly Southern”, “a whole ‘nother planet” and “Middle America”. I learned of Missouri’s history as a slave state that fought for, but was not part of, the Confederacy, and of the Southerners who moved to Missouri after it became a state and brought their traditions, customs and attitudes with them. I’m inclined to agree with a geographer friend who explained that Branson’s friendliness is because it’s “geographically in the Midwest but culturally in the South.”

The fact that Branson is in the Bible Belt is clear. Jesus was everywhere, even descending from the heavens to talk to Moses at the end of the Sight & Sound musical of the same name. Explaining how close-knit the Branson community is, Danny, a bluegrass musician, said of his bandmate: “John loves Jesus and that’s why we love him.” The actor who plays Elvis in the musical Million Dollar Quartet tells me he loves the small town feel of Branson. “I love the people and I love the Lord. I thank God every day that we’re here.”

Almost everyone I spoke to for more than a minute somehow brought Jesus into the conversation. I found this fascinating, as it is only after getting to know someone quite well in Turkey or Cambodia that they mention Allah or Buddha, even though religion plays an important role in their lives, too. Even in devoutly Christian Uganda, I only heard God and Jesus mentioned once.

Branson welcomes everyone, whether visitors or residents, with heart. I’m not sure if it’s because of the area’s Christian, Midwest, or Southern values, but I loved not feeling like a tourist.

Anthony Chapel, Garvan Gardens. Photo by Johanna Read

Hospitality in Hot Springs, Arkansas

There’s little debate that Hot Springs, Arkansas is in the South. The town where BIll Clinton grew up is also known for its history and hospitality.

Hot Springs has welcomed visitors to “take the waters” since the Valley of the Vapours’ 47 hot springs were first discovered by indigenous peoples. As in Silver Dollar City, Hot Springs provides another opportunity to learn about American history and about Americans today.

Hot Springs’ first heyday was in the 1870s, when bathhouses were built over the pools of 143℉ water. Both medical help and quackery were sold to those suffering from jaundice, syphilis, rheumatism and other illnesses.

The baths were popular again during the 1920s and ‘30s when Al “Scarface” Capone and his mobster allies and foes set their rivalries aside to enjoy “Bubbles” and the brothels, drinking, and gambling that flourished here. I felt a little like a gangster myself as I listened to a blues jam at the Ohio Club. Now a live music venue, the club was once a speakeasy and gambling den hidden behind a cigar shop. The band was so good I was tempted to make a bootleg recording.

The hospitality of the 19th and 20th centuries prevails in Hot Springs today. Near the wooded national park’s bike paths, I strolled along downtown’s Bathhouse Row. The Neoclassical, Spanish Colonial, and Renaissance Revival architecture glowed in the sunshine. At the free museum inside Fordyce Bathhouse I was mystified by the instruments, treatments, and the comforts patients enjoyed. National Park staff and Hot Springs citizens alike were happy to give directions and share stories of Hot Springs’ history.

I took the waters myself at Quapaw Baths & Spa, where once again I was inspired by the American Heartland’s welcome. Staff at Quapaw didn’t just focus on their jobs mopping puddles off the pool deck, sanitizing benches in the steam cave, and picking up wet towels. Instead, they advised me on how to best “glisten” (a lady doesn’t sweat, especially in the South) in the steam cave and reap all the benefits of the geothermal waters. The staff surprised me with interesting anecdotes about the springs and the fountains they preferred to draw their water from for drinking at home. Like in Branson, I felt like everyone I met wanted to ensure I had a wonderful time.

Anthony Valinoti, an ex-Wall Streeter, felt such a welcoming spirit in Hot Springs that he packed up his home in Brooklyn and moved there. He’s now the chef-owner of DeLuca’s Pizzeria, which makes the best pizza I’ve had outside of Italy. He says it’s because of the hot springwater in the dough. I think it’s because of the heart that both he and the town exude.

Like many places in the American Heartland, hospitality and a family-style welcome abound in Hot Springs. Proprietors of local businesses like The Pancake Shop (serving made-from-scratch breakfasts with freshly-squeezed OJ), and Superior Bathhouse Brewery Distillery (which transforms local springwater into beer, root beer, and spirits), and McClard’s Bar-B-Q (where the Clintons still eat when they’re in town) make a point of welcoming guests — whether from near or far — in person.

In both places I was welcomed like family. People were open with their stories, incredibly hospitable and everyone I met wanted to ensure I was enjoying myself.

Visiting Hot Springs and Branson opened my eyes to a part of the U.S. I knew little about. I had been missing out by dismissing travel to the middle of America. As the world grows smaller and more fractured, it’s important to understand both the places close to home as well as those far away. You might even be surprised, just as  I was.
This article was originally published in Almost Fearless.

Photographs and words by Johanna Read

Waterfall at Garvan Gardens, Hot Spring Arkansas. Photo by Johanna Read

BIO: Johanna Read

Johanna Read is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel, food and responsible tourism. Writing for a variety of Canadian and international publications, she likes to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable.

She’d love your follows on social media (Instagram @TravelEaterJohanna, Twitter @TravelEater, and  Links to all her travel stories are at